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The Pochayiv Lavra, the biggest Russian Orthodox Monastery in West Ukraine, on March 1.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

For centuries, the Pochayiv Lavra has towered over this part of Western Ukraine, its golden domes crowning the 60-metre-high hill the rest of the town is built around.

The Lavra, which belongs to the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, meaning it follows the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate, is the centre of life in Pochayiv. Most of the town’s 7,700 residents pray there, and the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who come to visit Lavra’s cathedrals, including its network of subterranean chapels, are the basis of the local economy.

These days, the doors of the Lavra’s cathedrals, normally opened, are sealed to visitors outside of service times. And many in the town are suspicious of which side its monks – who defer to Russian Patriarch Kirill, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin – support, as Russian troops continue their bloody assault on Ukraine. Locals also wonder what’s inside those caves.

The suspicions were fuelled by the discovery of guns and what appeared to be military rations at another pro-Moscow Orthodox Church in the neighbouring region of Ivano-Frankivsk. The discovery was made shortly after the war began, when people observed someone inside the church in the town of Kolomiya pointing a laser at a nearby Ukrainian military airport, potentially helping to target it.

Father Mykhailo Arsenich, a Greek Catholic priest who is a Ukrainian military chaplain, said Ukrainian forces found two pistols and a converted Kalashnikov rifle inside the church. More damning, he said, was what appeared to be enough food to feed a unit of soldiers.

“It was packed properly for military use. It could feed 60 to 65 people for a long time,” he said, adding that 480 litres of alcohol, as well as a large box of condoms had also been seized. “It was very surprising for a monastery.”

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Most of the town’s 7,700 residents pray at the Lavra, and the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who come to visit Lavra’s cathedrals are the basis of the local economy.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

In Pochayiv, 240 kilometres away, the suddenly closed doors at the much larger Lavra – one of the holiest sites in the Orthodox world – have raised concerns that something similar may lie in the caves beneath.

“This Lavra is huge and there are huge caves. You don’t know what’s in there, or why it’s closed. That’s why it’s a big concern,” said Father Mykhailo. “I’m 100 per cent convinced that if Russian paratroopers land there, they will use that monastery as a base.”

When The Globe visited the Pochayiv Lavra this week, the outer gates were open, as was the tourist shop, but not the cathedrals or the caves beneath them. A monk said the holy sites were closed “because of the situation.” Three men in black jackets followed a Globe reporter and photographer around throughout a brief tour of the compound.

“I don’t know what’s in there, but we are worried about it,” said Yuriy, a 62-year-old pig farmer who lives, like everyone in Pochayiv, within sight of the Lavra. The Globe is not using the family names of Pochayiv residents because they feared retribution for criticizing the monks. “Why do they support this Kirill, who is a KGB guy, who is against Ukraine?”

Such anger emanates as a result of the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, and between Patriarch Kirill and Mr. Putin.

Patriarch Kirill has been long been the subject of rumours suggesting that he collaborated with the KGB in the Soviet era. Mr. Putin was an agent before his sudden rise to the Russian presidency 22 years ago.

Suspicions only deepened in Ukraine when he supported Mr. Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Most recently, he used his politically charged Feb. 27 sermon – three days after the war began – to warn against “evil forces” who were against the historic unity of Russia and Ukraine.

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When The Globe visited the Pochayiv Lavra this week, the outer gates were open, as was the tourist shop, but not the cathedrals or the caves beneath them.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

“God forbid that the present political situation in fraternal Ukraine so close to us should be aimed at making the evil forces that have always strived against the unity of Rus’ and the Russian Church, gain the upper hand,” Patriarch Kirill told worshippers at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. He was referring to the medieval state known as Kyivan Rus’, which is considered the ancestor of both Russia and Ukraine.

The Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches were united for centuries under the Moscow Patriarchate, until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when a Kyiv Patriarchate was established. Most Ukrainian Orthodox churches, however, continued to defer to Moscow until the Crimea annexation, after which more and more have switched their loyalty to Kyiv.

In 2018, the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based head of the Orthodox church worldwide, recognized the independence of the Kyiv Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox church then renounced all connections to Patriarch Bartholomew.

Nadya, a 67-year-old college administrator in Pochayiv, said the Lavra had alienated itself from many in town by closing its doors to local residents in a time of war. “They have a lot of underground tunnels there. In case of the bombing of Pochayiv, there is no safe place to go. Only the Lavra. But the priests have not said ‘come here, we will protect you.’ ”

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